With Rise Of The Planet of the Apes proving to be a welcome return to the screen for the venerable Apes franchise, we spoke to director Rupert Wyatt and visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon to discuss their work on the film. Note: This interview was undertaken the day after the London riots.
It’s an interesting time for your film to be coming out.
Rupert Wyatt: I think so. That’s the great thing about the Apes mythology, it holds a mirror up to who we are and what we represent. What we wanted to do, in the shape of a big Hollywood blockbuster, was ask certain questions about where we are now. Hopefully, any films we do in the future will continue to explore more of that.
RW: No, Andy was the obvious choice. Very early on we decided to go with performance capture rather than live apes. Firstly, that worked for us from a moral point of view, as I felt it would be wrong to tell the story of the exploited and the oppressed using performing apes! Also, from a practical point of view, apes tend to look alike because of the very limited gene-pool, so for us to tell them apart would have been virtually impossible.
Dan Lemmon: Also, the arc that Caesar goes on, the performance we needed to get out of him, was pretty specific and required a talented actor to guide that through. Rise is essentially a character drama for ninety per cent of the film, and so we wanted to make sure that the performance was really working.Was the decision for Caesar to be virtually mute throughout made early on?
RW: Yes, mainly because – unlike the original films – we were dealing with real apes. On an anatomical level, one key difference between humans and chimpanzees is that our voicebox is much higher in the throat. Physically, chimps just don’t have the capabilities of speaking. I actually shot a scene in the film where Caroline (Freida Pinto’s character) is giving Caesar a check-up and she feels something in his throat, which turns out to be his Adam’s apple.
I shot it and put it in the cut, but it was like a red flag saying, “Oh, he’s going to talk in a minute”, so we cut it out. There are certain cinematic licenses we take, but from very early on we wanted to keep the dialogue to an absolute minimum.
Did you draw on any real life stories, such as Project Nim, for inspiration?
RW: We did. I haven’t seen Project Nim yet, but when we were rehearsing, Andy and I looked into all kinds of stories of chimpanzees becoming domesticated. There was one in particular, Oliver: The Humanzee that became a great source of reference for Andy. That’s well worth checking out on YouTube.In terms of your own career, you’ve made a huge leap from doing The Escapist to this film. That’s ostensibly a prison film and this has elements of that too, do you think that played a part in getting the job?
RW: I’m sure it probably did, and I’m sure [the studio] saw the connection. When I was making The Escapist, I wanted to use minimal dialogue, because prisoners don’t like to reveal much about themselves. Ironically, I always thought of the prison as an ape colony, which was a bit of a coincidence.
Was the bigger scale of this film a freedom or a constraint?
RW: There were many freedoms. Working with WETA liberates you in terms of what you can achieve, as it’s only your imagination that limits you. When you’re working at this level, you’re working with the best in the world, which isn’t to say that I didn’t have a terrific crew on The Escapist.
I guess the biggest difference when you’re working on something of this size, is that you have to learn to delegate and understand that everyone who’s working on the film has a creative, as well as technical, role. But the key thing is to get the right people. You get the wrong people and… well, the horse very quickly becomes the camel!
RW: We tried to make as many nods and connections as we could, but only as long as they served the story. With Hollywood films, there’s a tendency to do those things with a nod and a wink and a sense of irony and not take it too seriously. That would have been the death of us.
The same was true of the story. We wanted to make it a real world that allowed the audience to buy into these characters. That’s very different from other films in the franchise, which are more heightened and obviously science fiction.
So is there room for another prequel set in the years before the original Planet of the Apes?
RW: We’ve got 3000 years to explore! There’s so much you could do with it. You could do Full Metal Jacket with apes, which would be a great sequel. And that’s what we’re setting up, the conflict between two civilisations clashing for the first time. Ironically, this film is much more of an escape film. It’s about the apes getting out of our world and into one they feel comfortable within.
RW: It’s a good question. When I first read the script, I didn’t read it with a view as to how it would progress. I read it as a stand-alone story, and all of us approached it in that way. I feel you’re in danger of not completing what you set out to achieve if you’re always looking to what comes next. Ultimately, we wanted to lay a firm, yet lean foundation that allowed other films to be made if people embrace this one.
At this point, the audience’s sympathy is firmly with the apes. Is it possible to maintain that, as we know that, ultimately, the apes will defeat humanity?
RW: Well, everybody loves a good underdog story, and we wanted to play with that, but without going too far into the whole ‘humans are bad, apes are good’ thing. Clearly, there are bad apples in both species and, undoubtedly, Casesar is going to become conflicted in any potential future stories as – because of his upbringing – he doesn’t necessarily want to see humanity wiped off the face of the Earth.
And are those stories you would like to tell yourself?
RW: If Dan [Lemmon] and Andy [Serkis] do, then yeah, I think so.
Rupert Wyatt and Dan Lemmon, thank you very much.